Should I Buy a Car Online or at a Dealership?

Skipping the automotive dealership experience may be tempting, but make sure you're fully informed about online options before buying your next car.

African American woman showing off her new car keysShutterstock

Article QuickTakes:

With the rise of online car sales, buying a car, SUV, minivan, or truck—whether new or used—has never been easier. You may be tempted to opt for an online shopping service rather than the dealership, but buying on the internet has its pros and cons as well. This story will help you make an informed choice about how to conduct your car shopping experience.

What are the Benefits of Buying a Car at a Dealership?

Whether you're looking for a brand new or used vehicle, most car buyers are familiar with the dealership experience. You can speak to salespeople and explore cars in-person to ensure the vehicle will be the right fit for you and your family.

You'll also be able to make important financial choices at the dealership, including exploring various financing options—like choosing a lease rather than an outright purchase—or determining the best trade-in value for the vehicle you're replacing.

Used car dealerships also offer a crucial chance for buyers to explore the vehicle with a test-drive and verify that there are no unreported flaws or gaps in the vehicle history.

Are there Disadvantages of Buying a Car at a Dealership?

Many people who have purchased a vehicle from a dealership already know the downsides. Shopping in person can be time-consuming, both when it comes to traversing from one dealership to the next in search of the right vehicle and the amount of time it takes to land on a price, understand the monthly payments, and complete the paperwork.

Purchasing from a dealership also requires a keen eye for detail. Some buyers who purchase a warranty from the dealership may find a clause that requires all maintenance to be completed at that dealership or face a voided warranty. Other buyers may notice additional dealership-specific fees are added to the manufacturer’s suggested retail price of the vehicle, resulting in a more expensive purchase than was intended. Still, others may have to fend off high-pressure salespeople who are determined to sell more add-ons and increase the sale price.

What are the Pros of Buying a Car on the Internet?

The biggest benefit of buying a car online is the time you'll save compared to going to a dealership—or, in many cases, going from one dealership to another in search of the best deal. You'll be able to shop for a variety of vehicles at your leisure, including cars that are hundreds of miles away from you, all from the comfort of your own home. Buying online is an equally great option for people who know exactly the trims and packages they want from their vehicle and buyers who may be just starting to research what type of vehicle they want.

The anonymity of the Internet also means there's very little stress. Buyers don't have to worry about negotiating a fair price face-to-face or being talked into additional add-ons by a slick salesperson, or finding the time to look at their chosen vehicle in person.

Today, it's possible to buy both new and used cars online. Startups like Tesla and Rivian offer entirely online buying processes where a vehicle is either shipped to your home or dropped at the nearest delivery center. If you’re buying a new vehicle from an established automaker, you may be able to reserve a vehicle designed exactly to your tastes or pick from available inventory on many automakers’ websites, but to complete the transaction, though, you’re likely to have to work with a local dealership and deal with many of the same situations as shopping in a store.

In the used car world, online dealers like Carvana, Vroom, or CarMax allow you to purchase a vehicle online and have the car delivered to your driveway with minimal human interaction.

What are the Cons of Buying a Car Online?

Of course, there are still some issues with buying online. When you aren't talking with a salesperson, you're more likely to have limited financing options and negotiating room. Online buying websites like Carvana, for example, often have an in-house financing department and a no-haggle policy that can save time but may not necessarily result in the best deal.

Further, you may not be able to test-drive your car to guarantee you enjoy the way it handles or verifies that there are no significant issues with the vehicle. While test-driving is always important, it's especially crucial for used, high-mileage, or older cars that may have acquired more wear than usual. Online shopping sites like Carvana often offer a trial period when you can choose to return the car, but it's important to read the fine print to ensure this is the case.

Finally, you can still run into one big hidden fee when car shopping on the internet: shipping and transportation fees. If you've bought a vehicle from a different area, you may have to pay extra to have it delivered to you.

Should You Buy Your Next Vehicle Online or at a Dealership?

Buying a car online or at a dealership are both great, viable ways to become a vehicle owner in the age of the Internet, but choosing between these options can be daunting. Before making a decision, it may help to keep the following concerns in mind.

Buying at a dealership may be the right option for you if:

  • You aren't sure what vehicle you want to buy
  • You want to test-drive vehicles before making a decision
  • You're buying an older, higher-mileage, or used vehicle
  • You want to ask questions, negotiate the price, or explore financing options

Buying online may be the right option for you if:

  • You know the vehicle you want but can't find it locally
  • You don't know what vehicle you like and don't know where to start the process
  • You don't mind using an online car website's in-house financing department or paying the listed fee
  • You want the buying process over as quickly as possible while speaking to as few people as possible
  • You're buying a new or lightly used vehicle
This site is for educational purposes only. The third parties listed are not affiliated with Capital One and are solely responsible for their opinions, products and services. Capital One does not provide, endorse or guarantee any third-party product, service, information or recommendation listed above. The information presented in this article is believed to be accurate at the time of publication, but is subject to change. The images shown are for illustration purposes only and may not be an exact representation of the product. The material provided on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice or to indicate the availability or suitability of any Capital One product or service to your unique circumstances. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.
author photo
Elizabeth Blackstock
I’m Elizabeth Blackstock, and after growing up around the Detroit automotive industry, I’ve made it my life’s mission to make information about vehicles accessible for the average consumer. Whether you’re a hardcore auto enthusiast or someone looking for a practical machine for the daily commute, I’m here to help you make your most informed decision.